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Royal Wimbledon

Yardage
6350
Par
70
SSS
71
Built
1865/1908
Architect(s)
Willie Park jnr. Harry Colt, Tom Mackenzie
Nature:
Willie Park jnr & Colt designed heathland/parkland. Sociable and historic Club.
Location/Address:
SW19 4UW. Continue down Camp Rd past Wimbledon Common GC.
https://www.rwgc.co.uk/
Secretary
Robert Brewer
Telephone
020 8946 2125
Professional
David Jones
Green Keeper
Nick Paris
Access Policy:
Visitors are welcome Monday to Thursday booked in advance
Dog Policy:
well behaved dogs are welcome
Open Meetings:
-
Fees in 1960s
37p
Fees today
£165 - 2020

Review

Royal Wimbledon G.C. has long been at the very forefront of English golf and has never been afraid to move with the times while holding on to the core importance that golf is a game of social enjoyment.

It may be thought a frivolous example but studying the high number of photographs of players wearing well styled, fashionably coloured ‘Portillo pastel’ shorts in the beautifully presented coffee-table book celebrating the Club’s 150 years provides a confident feeling to this attractive bourgeois club that maintains high standards.

Two early Victorian members

The Club is rightly proud of both its history, its help in creating Royal St George’s at Sandwich, its early role in women’s golf and the design of its course by the finest of architects in Willie Park Jnr. Harry Colt and now Mackenzie Ebert.

Nevertheless, FineGolf’s truthfulness in reviewing the finest clubs demands that we point out that there is usually a balance to be recognised. This is perhaps reflected in the sesquicentennial-celebrating book: 1) it overlooks that Lord Elcho’s early development at Felixstowe was the first fashionable seaside course for Londoners and 2) with a chapter apiece for secretaries and professionals, it shows an almost complete lack of recognition of their greenkeepers. This last omission speaks to two weaknesses, a sad lack of respect for the greenkeeping contribution and the down-playing of the importance of greenkeeping in the maintenance of the Club’s greatest asset.

Lord Elcho

Lord Elcho MP, Earl of Wemyss, the commanding officer of the London & Scottish Rifle Volunteers, who started playing golf at the age of fourteen and was still playing at ninety-two helped by riding sedately a chestnut cob between shots in his later years, granted land near the rifle butts on Wimbledon common, for the creation of the initial seven hole course, which was designed by Willie Dunn of Musselbough in 1865.

A montage of early members in front of the London Scottish Windmill

Civilian members were later allowed to join the London Scottish Club and after some acrimony the civilian members formed their own Wimbledon GC in 1881, which a year later became Royal Wimbledon. Both clubs were sharing the now eighteen hole course, as in the manner of Scottish courses like Carnoustie, Montrose and Monifieth that to this day have a number of golf clubs with their own clubhouses, but playing the same course.

Laidlaw Purves putting.

The foundation of Royal St George’s G.C. in 1887 was due to two Royal Wimbledon members, Dr Laidlaw Purves and Henry Lamb, ‘discovering’ the expanse of dunes at Sandwich. Royal St George’s initial committee meetings of this predominantly ‘London members club’ were therefore held at Royal Wimbledon.

Henry Lamb, Royal Wimbledon’s early secretary.

For whatever reasons, perhaps finer land or the success of the new-monied, upper middle classes at these two locations rather than the aristocratic flavour at London Scottish and Felixstowe, Royal Wimbledon thrived.

The Club fully broke away to create their own London course on the 240 acres next door at Warren Farm designed by Willie Park Jnr and opened for play in 1908.

Willie Park Jnr.

Willie Park Jnr., the first golf entrepreneur to come from the ranks of the pros (he created and owned Huntercombe GC, as well as being a two time Open Champion) was a course architect who arguably was the father of the new strategic school of inland course design, if one goes by the number younger course architects who flocked to join Huntercome GC to study what the great man had created.

This contrasted with Laidlaw Purves who built penal ramparts of cross hazards at the Sandwich course. Park created a course at Wimbledon comprising two types of land, one using the open heathland of the upper slopes incorporating the iron-age walled hill fortress, called Caesar’s Camp, into five of the holes, and the other using the more tree-ed and lush parkland for the lower holes.

Map with Park’s holes overlaid on Colt’s course. Click to enlarge

After World War One, Harry Colt was approached for advice and, after clearing out a lot more trees that the Willie Park design had skirted around, created the substantially different course layout that we play on today, with only the present 7th, 11th, 15th and 16th being essentially original Park holes.

Mackenzie Ebert being retained recently have done extensive historical research and made the comment: “Colt’s routing never has more than two consecutive holes opposite each other. Routing holes effortlessly over the landscape was perhaps his greatest strength which is why his courses have stood the test of time so well, in the face of a series of revolutions in the clubs and balls players use”.

Nevertheless, their research also revealed that Colt was never involved after 1925, though the Club’s committee has itself tinkered with many of the individual hole designs, particularly in the 1930s, significantly reducing the size of many greens and the number of bunkers but more importantly losing many of their natural shapings. Where it makes sense the Club is restoring these features using the earlier Colt design as inspiration.

As we can still easily imagine it, it is worth mentioning Park’s first hole of 266 yards that was a blind drive to the now seventeenth green. This had all the fun of risk/reward and a lot of luck thrown-in. Bernard Darwin, the doyen of all golf writers, called it “curious, amusing and chancy. However, golf would be dull if we never got more nor less than our just deserts.” Colt nevertheless decided that virtually identical shots to Park’s first green being able to produce anything from an eagle to a multiple bogey was just too much and created the dogleg hole to the present first green.

1930s aerial of the course.

The aerial photographs show the extent to which trees had grown up between the 1930s and the 1960s. It was not surprising, considering the fashionable nature of this club, that this continued and by the 1990s trees had been allowed to encroach further and a parkland feel now covered the whole course.

1960s aerial of the course

At the same time the course maintenance philosophy had declined to one of following the London-centric fashion for ‘target-golf’ utilising soft annual meadow grassed (Poa annua) greens.

It would be flattering to think that FineGolf and its newsletter explaining the many advantages of firm fine grasses, might have had something to do with helping educate and strengthen the backbone of some of the Club’s leadership in their attempts over recent years to return the course to something closer to its original character with running fairways and firm greens.

The 13th in 2010

A lot of trees now have been removed beside the fairways of the upper holes and around the greens of the short holes, thereby opening up the opportunity of a heathland style again that allows sun and wind to dry out the course.

The 13th in 2019

This should also help the natural fine fescues to supersede the ‘sticky’ ryegrass and Poa Annua infested fairways.

The new enthusiastic course manager Nick Paris says he wants to develop fine grassed greens with browntop bent and if he perseveres, as has been done with success for example at Huntercombe, and is allowed to take the time in educating the Club membership to support low input conservation greenkeeping, perhaps Royal Wimbledon will become a leader of the London clubs again.

If this proves the case, they will get ahead in this current world where chemicals are being banned and golf needs to be seen as having applied agronomic sustainability. In so doing, it will be more in line with the ‘person in the street’ and the general public’s wish to help ‘save the planet’ without embracing any extremist climate alarmism.

The drive at the second.

Another aspect that shows the early importance of Royal Wimbledon is that although we today assume that the first rules of golf were always defined by the Scots, in fact in the 1880s the Club’s members instigated their own rule-book and it was not until the Royal and Ancient compromised on some ‘inland course’ details that the Club obtained a unified set of rules between Scotland and England.

I read a comment recently describing RWGC as a ‘hidden gem’. This opinion may have been typical of a certain type of pro’s view but is an arrogant assumption when used with regard to this Club’s course in comparing it to the modern, hotel-based, 7,000 yard, bulldozered, target-golf courses located near conurbations that were built on mud in the boom years of the 1980-90s, always to supposedly ‘championship’ standard. Such boring courses are not what we should aspire to play or by which we should judge the finest courses.

The reality is that after procuring a pro tournament for the initial publicity, such unimaginative enterprises often fell into bankruptcy, whereas this Club, despite never having chased similar publicity has given enormous enjoyment both sociably and sporting-wise for now over 150 years.

This course, though only 6350 yards off the back tees, par 70, SSS 71, when it runs firm is a true test and a stern challenge of golf discipline. There are three very short par fours, the sixth (287 yards), ninth (278 yards) and eighteenth (301 yards) which are very much birdie chances when their greens are soft and the approach shot resembles the playing of darts, i.e. is purely a matter of mere direction and length, rendering Colt’s green complex hazards almost irrelevant.

The parkland 4th hole.

Five of the other nine par fours are straight and they are all between 395 and 452 yards, requiring use of every club in your bag, with those located on the lower slopes playing from confidence building high tees into valleys and then to greens raised well above the fairways.

The parkland 16th hole.

The seventh (502 yards downhill with a view of the closely tree-ed parkland Coombe Hill course across the hidden valley of the A3) and the tenth (487 yards uphill) are the card’s two par fives and are similarly straight, playing in parallel in and out of Caesar’s Camp. These will be par fours for the young tigers, while the green complex at seven has been recently amended with deep fescue-turfed run-offs and been returned to Park’s longer green.

heather at the 7th drive. A Coombe Hill fairway on hill behind.

The distance the ball is being allowed to be struck in recent years may provide bigger profits to the club and ball manufacturers and pro shops but it is compromising some of our finest courses.

It is not surprising that one finds some hickory players based at this club, usually playing from the more forward tees of around 5800 yards. Philip Truett (a member of FineGolf’s Advisory Panel) as the doyen of hickory golf, was given space in the sesquicentennial book to note that: “In hitting a hickory well, you know that you’ve struck it right out of the middle of the club. There is considerable yardage between such a pure strike and any other indifferently hit shot. New club technology has become more and more forgiving and is steadily making golf more uniform. Any challenge that brings one back to the fundamental principles of the game must be welcomed and RWGC members are among those encouraging the playing of hickory golf.”

1st green

Roger Wethered.

The first hole here is now a little contrived with the fairway having had to be recently moved away for safety reasons from the house on the corner where the brilliant champion amateur golfer Roger Wethered once lived. Nevertheless, being now a 425 yard right-angle dogleg, it is one of four opening stretchy holes that will soon get the blood moving in your veins.

The par three 5th

In a calm moment what, however, may be most remembered are the three exceptional par threes. The fifth (166 yards), the thirteenth (159 yards) and the eighth (217 yards) are played across depressions to plateau greens dug into the hill at five and thirteen and to a green that leaks away from you at eight.

The long par three 8th

The seventeenth at 136 yards is easier but if these four holes are played well not only does it set up a good score but will top-off one’s enjoyment of a very fine and testing course that will hopefully continue its rise out of the target-golf doldrums.

These are doldrums that so many of the fine natural, well draining, heathland courses around London have lapsed into, beguiled by the siren voices chasing ever faster putting speeds in excess of ten foot demanded by poor members undermined by Augusta Syndrome Disease (ASD).

Dexter on the tee of the parkland 3rd.

The late Peter Thomson, five times Open Champion, who felt that gratuitous water on any course is a mistake, was delighted to find this course virtually dry. Heather is being encouraged once again and here, as at most of the finest clubs, at least in South-East England, well-behaved dogs are welcomed as adding to the sociability of the game.

There are no less than 120 trophies for which the members play annually, the oldest being the silver jug created by Robert Hennel in 1854 and competed for by lady golfers.

The enormous practice putting green.

There is an enormous practice putting green on which competitions are played including the ‘schools putting competition’. This event started in 1939, initially with teams from different clubs but by 1996 consisted solely of 32 public school old boys golfing societies, in similar mode to the 64 who enter the Halford Hewitt at Deal.

The first twenty-nine varsity golf matches between Oxford and Cambridge Universities were held over the Wimbledon Common course and the Club continues this strong association with both golfing societies preserving some of the best traditions of amateur golf in the country.

The 1st tee in front of the clubhouse.

The clubhouse in 1882 was called Camp Cottage and several piecemeal changes and additions have been made to the original iron-frame construction, the number accelerating after 1986 when a new 300-year lease was negotiated with the Borough of Merton. Today it is a sprawling building with much character and like Tadmarton Heath’s clubhouse has a magnificent espalier of wisteria that is a profuse lilac in the spring.

Tim Dickson

The editor of the notable publication ‘Golf Quarterly’, who was elected captain of the Club in their sesquicentennial year remarked “We will look ahead and seek to ensure that over the next 150 years, Royal Wimbledon sets new standards of excellence on and off the golf course and continues to be the place admired for the camaraderie, openness and generosity of its members”. So say all of us.

See ‘The history of Royal Wimbledon golf club 1865 – 1986’ by Charles Cruickshank.

Also see ‘Royal Wimbledon Golf Club celebrating 150 years‘ co-ordinated by Michael Doggart with photos by Roger Smeeton.

Reviewed by Lorne Smith in 2020.

 

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